Boris Johnson has been accused of “trying to be like” Donald Trump and modelling himself on the US president as major parties clashed in the latest televised election debate.
The prime minister was absent from the seven-way contest hosted by ITV on Sunday evening, sending minister Rishi Sunak in his place instead to defend the government’s record on issues like Brexit, the NHS, and austerity.
Mr Trump is due to visit Britain on Tuesday, where he will dine with Mr Johnson and other world leaders at a banquet – a trip that is likely to dominate the headlines at a crucial point in the election campaign.
The president has previously feted Mr Johnson with praise and said he is “doing very well”. But this week the prime minister is reportedly trying to minimise his screen time with the US president because of the sensitive timing of the visit.
The Tory leader’s close relationship with the US president was defended by Nigel Farage, who also downplayed Mr Trump’s history of making lewd comments about women.
Mr Farage has said it was a “great mistake” for politicians in Britain to demonise the US president because of the great advantages a close relationship would bring.
“It was crass and it was crude and it was wrong – men say dreadful things sometimes,” he said, referring comments in which the US president said he would “grab” women by their genitals without their permission.
But Mr Farage added: “If all of us were called out for what we did on a night out after a drink, none of us would…”
Amid consternation from the studio audience and other leaders Mr Farage was then interrupted by Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson who said: “Is that what you do on a night out after a drink?”
Mr Farage replied: “He is president of the USA and that relationship matters. You are so anti-American you are prepared to put your hatred of Trump above our national interest That is a great mistake.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “That in my view is not what the UK or any part of it needs. Donald Trump’s attitudes are wrong and they are dangerous. In Boris Johnson, we have got somebody who is trying to be like him.”
Labour’s shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, who was representing his party in the debate said: “Our quarrel and difference is with some of the policies of Donald Trump, who like Boris Johnson is a politician who has given the green light to sexism, homophobia and racism – and that cannot be allowed to flourish.”
But Tory Mr Sunak leap to his boss’s defence, telling the audience: “The relationship we have with America is incredibly important for keeping us safe. That is not something to turn your nose up at.”